Wednesday 7 January 2009


I started to think last week about the difference in what we physically see and what we actually perceive in our minds. The catalyst for these thoughts where as a result of watching the same television programme as some other people but having a completely different perception of what we had seen.

I visualised the following diagrammatic metaphor as a means of understanding this behaviour. But first a disclaimer, I have no knowledge of the optical mechanics of the human eye or the vastly complex neural processes that convert electrically stimulated cells on the retina into a conscious understanding in the brain. The diagram a few paragraphs below is therefore purely a metaphor.

Without intelligence, an image has no meaning. A digital camera can record a 7 million pixel crystal clear image of the world, but to the camera itself, it is worthless, the camera cannot deduce anything from the image or have a sense of beauty or wonder at the image it has captured. The human eye itself is somewhat similar, it merely captures an image of the world through a lens. The brain however, is able to decipher this image into some type of meaning. I suspect however, that it can’t do this without some prior knowledge and learning, and the nature of that knowledge and learning will determine how the image is perceived.

I remember an anecdote Billy Connolly once gave where he took his young children to the top of a mountain to show them a breathtaking view and had to explain to them that it was beautiful. Without learning what beauty is, and relating it to images, how can we judge what is beautiful? So once we have a little knowledge we can start to truly see things. I suspect however that our limited knowledge and learning greatly restricts what we are in fact able to see.

In the diagram below the eye is seeing a complete image of the world, but the limited knowledge of the brain processing the image is severely restricting what the viewer perceives to the green shaded area.

According to this crude metaphor: education, learning and knowledge have a great deal to play in actually being able to see what is around us. Not only does the breadth of knowledge affect what we can see, the nature and details of the knowledge will also affect how we see it.

One criticism that science is often charged with is that breaking the physical and natural world down into cruel, intelligible and atomic facts and processes can rob it of its beauty and majesty. Many popular science writers rebut this accusation with a contrary claim that knowledge in fact increases our ability of appreciating beauty and awe. My metaphor echoes this claim and my experience backs it up. I can certainly perceive a lot more about the world around me (including its beauty and awe) as a result of making a conscious attempt to understand it better.

Perhaps this metaphor can also explain a little about how religious and secular views of the world differ. The Church has historically made great efforts to control and restrict the knowledge and understanding of its followers to ensure they only perceive that small part of the world that is relevant to the Church’s teachings. Based on my religious friends, I suspect that the Church still attempts to instil notions and taboos in order to try and restrict the growth of knowledge outside of its worldview by censoring, or at least actively discouraging, secular books and TV programmes that threaten its cherished view. It is very easy to understand how religion had such a stronghold on the populous in the Dark Ages where knowledge was limited and Church controlled. No wonder natural disasters where routinely perceived as divine retribution and simple confidence tricks and coincidences perceived as miracles.

To take the metaphor once stage further, I think the notion of the knowledge of the brain deciphering the images of our eyes can extend beyond the small visible spectrum of light our eyes have evolved to process.

Our understanding of the universe, galaxies and planetary system largely exceeds what can be viewed by the naked eye. We had an understanding of the atomic structure in a time when glimpsing it was not possible. Perception can therefore be advanced beyond our sight by scientific peer reviewed theories backed up by incontrovertible evidence.

Perhaps this is what has led to a complex (although still incomplete) scientific perception of the world that often seems at odds with our “common sense”. A “common sense” that has evolved to make use of the more limited and less educated perception of the world. Is it this the same “common sense” that leads us up the garden paths of religion, paranormal, superstition, pseudoscience and quackery?